An Iranian Artist Paints What He Cannot Say

Talking to the World Project

I started this project in 2014 as a personal challenge. I wanted to see if it was possible to speak to one person in each country of the world. Talk to them about their daily lives. Our commonalities, rather than our differences. I assured them they could respond in any way they chose. Because the focus is on their words, I only identify them by their first names. To date, I have spoken with people in 60 plus countries with the help of friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues. I still have a long way to go.

“Silence has its own voice for those who listen.”

Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, tweeted me those words when I voiced my sadness at having an Iranian interviewee cancel at the last minute, saying he felt it was too risky to speak with me. Touched by Nafisi’s words, I resolved to move on.

Not long after making that decision, I was contacted by Aziz, an Iranian artist living in London. Aziz grew up in Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, the 20th century’s longest conventional war. He was a teacher with a doctoral degree in family counseling, taught at the university in Tehran, worked in an education agency, and cared for patients at a clinic.

Art, he said, helped relax his soul.

“My country changed very much after the Islamic Revolution. The people changed a lot. They have changed as if they are new people.”

Because Aziz left Iran under “very hard conditions,” he was unable to provide me with any photos of his life in Iran. “I am unable to access them,” he said.

Instead of photos, Aziz’s art illustrates this post, with his permission.

What is your last visual memory of Iran? Green leaves of trees in my home yard.

What was your favorite time of year in Iran and why? Spring, because it is the rebirth of creations, celebration of color, life, and movement.

What is a favorite childhood memory of growing up in Iran? Picnic with all my family. Also to be out of Tehran, cycling freely.

Please describe what a typical Iranian dinner. A colorful dinner. Salad Shirazi, a typical Iranian style salad with chopped cucumber, tomatoes, onions, dried mint, and lemon juice. Sabzi khordan, vegetables with parsley, mint, tarragon, chives, and radishes. Doogh, a drink made with water mixed with yogurt, dried mint, and salt.

I know you left Iran under harsh conditions. Can you tell us what they were?

It is very difficult for me to answer this question because it is very complicated. The Iranian government doesn’t like people like me. . . people who disagree with the government’s rules.

What myths or stereotypes about your country/culture would you like to set straight? My country’s people are very kind and friendly. The hallmark culture of the hospitality of strangers. Peaceful people.

In my country there lived and are still living different ethnic groups including Turk, Kurd, Arab, Baloch, Fars, and Gilaki people.

Also, in my country the four seasons are seen at the same time. It is winter in the north while it is summer in the south.

For more than two hundred years, my people have not attacked any other country.

What do you miss most about Iran? Sincerity and friendly people.

What brings you joy? For my family to be happy and for me to play around with paint.

What are your fears for the future? For Iran to be divided by civil war.

What gives you hope for the future? Belief.

How does your art help you deal with being separated from your country? I try to show social problems with the use of my culture base to acquaint people with my country.

What is your opinion of the United States? Chicago? Not all people in the world have a problem living together. Most of the problems are because of politicization. I think ordinary people live without thinking about these things.

USA and Iran were very good allies not long ago. I hope this relationship starts again.

I think Chicago is very busy and it is a beautiful city.

What are your thoughts about the Iran Nuclear Deal? The best option is conversation. It is better than other ways to properly assess the two sides.

What does Iran do well? Grow fresh organic crops and saffron. Make carpets.

What do you wish Iran did better? Allowed free elections by the people, not forced by other members of the government to choose a specific person.